Thursday, June 10, 2010

Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter by Edward M. Erdelac (weird Western novella collection)

I've recently developed an appreciation for the "weird Western," defined generally as a Western with supernatural elements. The first one I remember reading was Joe R. Lansdale's early novel Dead in the West, which features a zombie attack on a small settlement. Lansdale later wrote for the legendary comic Jonah Hex and is known as one of the main progenitors of the subgenre, along with the astonishingly prolific and influential Robert E. Howard.

Recently, I reviewed Paul Green's Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, and it really opened my eyes to all that has been and can be called a weird Western, from Star Wars, Avatar, and Firefly to Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter series, Lynne Reid Banks's Indian in the Cupboard books, and TV's The Wild, Wild West. I have since spent a good deal of time pursuing new reading.

Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter is a quartet of connected novellas set in 1879 by author Edward M. Erdelac. When the Merkabah Rider comes into town, he is unmistakable as a Jew with his black clothing, long beard, flat-brimmed hat, and curly payos (forelocks). But this Hasidic gunslinger is a mystic who can leave his body and kick ass with his Volcanic pistol on the astral plane — actually better than he does on the terrestrial plane. (Merkabah refers to the prophet Ezekiel's vision of an angel-driven chariot.)

Erdelac does a fantastic job threading Jewish mysticism and otherworldliness into what is otherwise a very authentic traditional Western. Merkabah Rider contains four "tales of a high planes drifter," each of which stands on its own yet tells a continuing story that builds as it progresses.

Obviously inspired by the television series Kung Fu, Merkabah Rider showcases a lone figure — the last of his order — traveling with his onager (as unshorn as The Rider's own payos) on the search for his teacher. He stops in various locales in the Arizona Territory and, like a Hasidic Mike Hammer, helping people by taking on responsibilities that aren't his because of a powerful sense of right and wrong. Then he stoically continues on his way. This conceit leaves a lot of room for varying kinds of stories, and Erdelac takes advantage of the flexibility.

The first "episode," "The Blood Libel," sees The Rider entering the town of Delirium Tremens (I said it was good; I didn't say it was subtle) in the midst of a rash of child kidnappings supposedly perpetrated by the residents of the nearby Jewish settlement. The Rider learns of idol worshipers and must confront the leader in the way only he can. Erdelac keeps the suspense high, especially after the Rider transcends his physical form and must finish his task and get back before some pissed-off locals lynch his unresponsive body.

In "The Dust Devils," a dust storm sends the Rider and his onager seeking shelter in nearby Polvo Arido ("dry dust"), where a bandito jefe and a brujo negro rule with evil intent. The magic man's demonic dust storm was supposed to keep people out, so the pair knows they need to get rid of this powerful intruder before he discovers their secret. But The Rider has help, too, and he's ready for a supernatural showdown.

"Hell's Hired Gun" finds The Rider stopping at a mission for water and instead finding all the residents brutally murdered -- the handiwork of one Medgar Tooms, whom the cerdos malos follow. An old priest with a heavy sin on his head is on hand to help. And "The Nightjar Women" sees The Rider in Tip Top, where demon babies are born dead and no children survive. It is a place where a lovely lady can be both a joy and a horror.

Merkabah Rider manages a wonderful balance of physical, intellectual, and spiritual conflicts, providing plenty of action on multiple planes. Visits from the demon Molech, legendary first woman Lilith, a future Mrs. Wyatt Earp, and even Robert E. Howard's "Kelly the Conjure-Man" heighten the experience.

In each episode, the reader learns more details about the history of The Rider and his master, who is difficult to locate because even The Rider only knew him as Adon ("Lord"). Knowing one's real name gives someone power over you, so when The Rider meets an entity who knows his, he knows he's in trouble. We also learn why the Rider is looking for Adon and what the master did that was so bad along with our hero's real name.

The stories contained in Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter are intelligent and gripping, with enough action to escape and enough history and mysticism to educate. The four novellas combine to create a fully engrossing cycle that combines research and fiction skillfully; the facts never feel "pasted in." Erdelac show himself to be a potential new addition to the ranks of Howard and Lansdale, and I look eagerly forward to further adventures of this last Son of the Essenes so I can follow this thoroughly engaging and original character on even more astral adventures.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails